Background

Question
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What is the source of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)?

Answer
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The virus was developed during

gain-of-function
research and was released by accident.

(
89%
probability)

Background
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When a novel coronavirus was first identified in late 2019, the assumption was that, like most epidemics, it was of a zoonotic source. A few studies, including one published in the prestigious Nature magazine, concluded that the virus is not a laboratory construct.

Today, claiming a non-zoonotic origin is widely considered a conspiracy theory, and indeed many such claims are easily refutable without requiring probabilistic inference.

However, the possibility of a lab escape does require serious examination, especially when considering the proximity of the source to a major coronavirus lab and several unusual findings in the genome of SARS-CoV-2. Due to the complexities of weighing an unlikely lab origin against findings that are unlikely for a zoonotic source, a probabilistic analysis is needed.

This analysis is part of the Rootclaim $100,000 challenge, open to anyone who disagrees with our calculated conclusion. Read more.

Hypotheses Considered
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Calculated Results
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Calculated Results
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1

89%
Lab escape:

The virus was developed during

gain-of-function
research and was released by accident.

89%

2

4.5%
Bioweapon:

The virus was genetically engineered as a bioweapon and was deliberately released.

4.5%

3

3.2%
Zoonotic collection:

The virus evolved in nature, and was contracted by virus researchers.

3.2%

4

3.2%
Zoonotic:

The virus evolved in nature and was transmitted to humans

zoonotically
.

3.2%

Starting Point
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Initial Probabilities

Name
Initial Likelihoods
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Zoonotic

78%

Lab escape

0.7%

Bioweapon

16%

Zoonotic collection

6%

There have been many more viruses introduced to humanity

zoonotically
than through lab failures. Specifically, there were several major pandemics involving novel coronaviruses from natural origin in recent years. Although there have been no known outbreaks involving any novel viruses (coronavirus or otherwise) that came from research, there have been cases of lab leaks that were caught before causing widespread infections, including one lab leak (of a previously known virus) that led to secondary infections. There are also no known cases of a virus being released deliberately in modern history.

Before examining the specific evidence, the initial estimate of the probabilities of Zoonotic : Zoonotic collection : Bioweapon : Lab escape (based on their respective likelihood of incidents per year) is 78% : 6% : 16% : 0.6%.

Name
Initial Likelihoods
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Zoonotic

78%

Lab escape

0.7%

Bioweapon

16%

Zoonotic collection

6%

Evidence
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Effect
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Contagion and mortality

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

91%

Lab escape
-

0.8%

Bioweapon
÷
10

1.8%

Zoonotic collection
-

7%

COVID-19 is more contagious than the typical flu, but not as fatal as recent viruses like MERS or SARS. Overall, it is not particularly well-suited as a traditional bioweapon, and COVID-19 broke out during a relatively peaceful time. This indicates that, if it was used as a bioweapon, it would probably not be released as a method of killing people but for a different purpose such as disrupting the world economy.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

91%

Lab escape
-

0.8%

Bioweapon
÷
10

1.8%

Zoonotic collection
-

7%

Outbreak location: Wuhan

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
20

51%

Lab escape
-

9%

Bioweapon
÷
15

1.4%

Zoonotic collection
÷
2

38%

The COVID-19 outbreak was first recorded in Wuhan, one of the larger cities in China. Large cities are often the initial breakout sites of zoonotic pandemics, but in that sense Wuhan is no more likely than any other city. It also isn't a particularly desirable target for releasing a bioweapon. 

However, Wuhan stands out for housing the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of only a few labs engaged in

gain-of-function
research.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
20

51%

Lab escape
-

9%

Bioweapon
÷
15

1.4%

Zoonotic collection
÷
2

38%

Virus sources near Wuhan

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

68%

Lab escape
÷
2

6%

Bioweapon
÷
2

0.9%

Zoonotic collection
÷
2

25%

There are no obvious natural sources for COVID-19 in the Wuhan area (Hubei province). The most similar coronavirus is found among bats that don’t live nearby, and scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact point where SARS-CoV-2 transferred to humans. On the other hand, the initial cluster of cases in the Wuhan wet market is significantly more likely if the virus originated

zoonotically
.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

68%

Lab escape
÷
2

6%

Bioweapon
÷
2

0.9%

Zoonotic collection
÷
2

25%

Chimera

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
8

46%

Lab escape
-

32%

Bioweapon
-

4.9%

Zoonotic collection
÷
8

17%

SARS-CoV-2 has parts in common with two different viruses, but those individual viruses do not share these similarities with each other, indicating it is a

chimera
. Such chimeras are found both in nature and in labs that conduct
gain-of-function
research. However, this specific
chimera
seems less likely to combine in nature, while the
WIV
is known to have access to both viruses.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
8

46%

Lab escape
-

32%

Bioweapon
-

4.9%

Zoonotic collection
÷
8

17%

Furin cleavage

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
8

13%

Lab escape
-

72%

Bioweapon
-

11%

Zoonotic collection
÷
8

4.7%

SARS-CoV-2 has a

furin cleavage site
- an amino acid sequence that causes the protease furin to cut the virus in a way that facilitates its entry into cells. This feature is missing in related coronaviruses, and its placement in the genetic code looks like an insertion rather than a mutation, making it less likely to develop in nature.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷
8

13%

Lab escape
-

72%

Bioweapon
-

11%

Zoonotic collection
÷
8

4.7%

Already well adapted

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

7%

Lab escape
×
2

79%

Bioweapon
×
2

12%

Zoonotic collection
-

2.6%

It appears that there was one index case of COVID-19, rather than multiple jumps from nature to humans, as was the case in many other pandemics. Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 was already well adapted for human infection from the first known cases.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

7%

Lab escape
×
2

79%

Bioweapon
×
2

12%

Zoonotic collection
-

2.6%

WIV lab procedures

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

3.8%

Lab escape
×
2

87%

Bioweapon
-

7%

Zoonotic collection
×
2

2.8%

There is some evidence regarding lax security and procedures at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including other coronaviruses that seem to have escaped the confines of the lab.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

3.8%

Lab escape
×
2

87%

Bioweapon
-

7%

Zoonotic collection
×
2

2.8%

Infections at WIV

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
×
1

3.8%

Lab escape
×
1

87%

Bioweapon
×
1

7%

Zoonotic collection
×
1

2.8%

A U.S. intelligence report showed that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought hospital care in November 2019, though the exact illness is not known. However, the

WIV
reported no COVID-19 infections or serological evidence of previous COVID-19 infections among their researchers.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
×
1

3.8%

Lab escape
×
1

87%

Bioweapon
×
1

7%

Zoonotic collection
×
1

2.8%

WIV disassociation

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

2%

Lab escape
×
2

92%

Bioweapon
-

3.5%

Zoonotic collection
×
1.5

2.3%

The

WIV
explicitly stated that they were not working on SARS-CoV-2 prior to the outbreak.

However, on December 30, when Dr. Shi Zheng-Li was informed of the COVID-19 outbreak, changes were made to her bat virus database, making it look like she was trying to dissociate her lab's research from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Then, in January 2020,

WIV
researchers published a paper claiming to have found a previously unknown coronavirus named RaTG13 that was a 96% match with SARS-CoV-2.

But RaTG13 is a new name given to BtCoV/4991, a coronavirus that the

WIV
discovered (along with many other viruses) when they examined a bat cave after six miners contracted a pneumonia-like disease and three died.

This, and other anomalies surrounding

WIV
’s handling of RaTG13, are indicative of attempts to minimize
WIV
involvement.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

2%

Lab escape
×
2

92%

Bioweapon
-

3.5%

Zoonotic collection
×
1.5

2.3%

Chinese response

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

1.4%

Lab escape
×
1.5

94%

Bioweapon
-

2.4%

Zoonotic collection
×
1.5

2.3%

The official Chinese response was not transparent, though not particularly surprising even if the virus developed

zoonotically
. They restricted WHO access, destroyed samples, and withheld information, which might be construed as an attempt to hide evidence that could be used to blame China for COVID-19. Additionally, they sent Major General Chen Wei from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences to oversee COVID-19 efforts at the
WIV
, which could potentially indicate the involvement of a bioweapon, but it is probably immaterial.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

1.4%

Lab escape
×
1.5

94%

Bioweapon
-

2.4%

Zoonotic collection
×
1.5

2.3%

Missing evidence

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

3.2%

Lab escape
÷
2.4

89%

Bioweapon
÷
1.2

4.5%

Zoonotic collection
÷
1.7

3.2%

If the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of a virus developed in a lab - and got out either as the result of an accident or released on purpose as a bioweapon - there are certain pieces of evidence that could have emerged by now, but so far did not. 

 

  1. No whistleblowers have given first hand testimony or exposed evidence of any link between COVID-19 and a lab, even though some doctors and researchers have spoken out about other incidents where they believed that China mishandled information regarding COVID-19.

  2. There were no published records of SARS-CoV-2 in virus databases or research grants.

  3. Wuhan was not immediately cordoned off when the first cases appeared.

Name

Effect

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Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-

3.2%

Lab escape
÷
2.4

89%

Bioweapon
÷
1.2

4.5%

Zoonotic collection
÷
1.7

3.2%

Discussion
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Doryphore

Mar 26, 2022 at 8:56 PM

Two pieces of evidence revealed makes me think the bioweapon scenario as far more likely than the lab leak (conditional on lab origin). A report by ABC News claimed that intelligence officials for US intelligence tried to warn Israel and its Nato allies A MONTH before the first case of covid was identified. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/intelligence-report-warned-coronavirus-crisis-early-november-sources/story?id=70031273 How did the US intel community know this when according to geneticists this virus had its origin in humans only in November or at the earliest in late October? How did they know of this "cataclysmic event" when there were less than a handful of infected? Why didn't they try to warn the world, not just its allies? If this was just one report we might be justified to think there was some error on the source's part or in the reporting of the sources. But the report was confirmed by Israeli media. Furthermore a recently published study shows that a genetic sequence on sars2 furin site was patented in 2016 by Moderna (a Pentagon contractor). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fviro.2022.834808/full The authors claim that there is about a one in three trillion chance this is coincidence. Authors also claim it couldn't be due to natural recombination event. Their claim the sequence is unique to sars2 and Moderna has been disputed but it looks still plausible that 1. there is a massive coincidence if there is a natural explanation and so it needs to be explained how it got into sars2.

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Mark Coutts

Mar 3, 2022 at 8:39 PM

New evidence emerging for the zoonotic hypothesis. The following discusses and links to the three preprints: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00584-8 Basically the SARS-CoV-2 samples found at the market were strongly concentrated in the areas where live animals are sold. More damning to the lab leak hypothesis is the fact that there were two different lineages found at the market, meaning that there would've had to have been *two* leaks from the lab, one for each lineage, that both wound up in the market.

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Youcan'tstopthetruth

Dec 12, 2021 at 5:12 AM

This should be updated to reflect the failed grant proposal that was submitted in 2018 to add a furin cleavage site to a coronavirus.

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Peter Eckersley

Dec 2, 2021 at 9:38 PM

The current analysis says, "when evaluating locations for a modified lab escape of a novel coronavirus Wuhan represents 25% of coronavirus gain-of-function research". Something to check about this number is that the creation of chimeras was previously not considered to be gain-of-function research by researchers and their funding bodies (see eg https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02903-x https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fauci-rand-paul-shouting-match-wuhan-lab-research/story?id=78946568), and the GoF category was reserved for experiments that subject a pathogen to _evolutionary pressure_ to gain a particular capacity. Most virologists considered the creation of chimeras not to be risky because typically chimeras are less functional than the pathogens they are created from (virology researcher, personal communication). So unclear whether WIV would retain 25% of the research if the category is all creation of coronavirus chimeras. One methodology for answering that would be a systematic analysis of the institutional affiliations of authors on papers (eg https://scholar.google.com/scholar?start=10&q=bat+coronavirus+chimera%7Cmutation%7Cselected%7C%22gain+of+function%22&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&as_ylo=2010&as_yhi=2019 ) that contribute to the risk of a chimera gaining function. WIV still features prominently in that research, but it might not stay at 25%.

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Stuart Deigin

Nov 12, 2021 at 8:04 PM

- Outbreak location: Wuhan This section is misleading. E.g., "Wuhan is no more likely than any other city" - while this isn't necessarily required for an outbreak to start there, Wuhan is the largest city in central China, it's exceptionally well-connected, and animal sales were ongoing across the city, including at the Huanan seafood market (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-91470-2). While it's impossible to rank order cities, Wuhan was certainly "more likely than any other city" in China to experience an outbreak. - Virus sources near Wuhan This whole section is incorrect - e.g., SARS1 was found in civet on farms in Hubei province and horseshoe bats are widespread across Hubei. Extensive farming of wild animals also exist in Hubei. References: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15872219/, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14752165/, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17314167/, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abh0117. - Chimera This section is nonsensical and incorrect. E.g., "the WIV is known to have access to both viruses" - that is not correct and the closest related known viruses were not identified by the WIV. References: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abh0117, https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-871965/v1. Instead, SARS-CoV-2 is a prime example of a recombinant virus as we observe extensively in the coronavirus family. Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32724171. - Furin cleavage This section is misleading. While it's correct that SARS-CoV-2 is the first sarbecovirus observed with an FCS, these sites are highly prevalent in (beta)coronaviruses and the S1/S2 boundary is one of the most evolvable sites in the entire virus genome. Further, the site itself is not an optimal FCS and it's 'inserted' out of frame. Reference: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0092867421009910 - Already well adapted This section is incorrect. SARS-CoV-2 is a generalist virus that is highly capable of infecting a lot of different mammals, including humans, other primates, mink, cats, lions, raccoon dogs, ferrets, and many others. Further, we have seen very significant evolution in the virus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, BANAL viruses and Pangolin CoVs are as good - if not better - at infecting human cells than SARS-CoV-2. References: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33711012, https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(21)00991-0, https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-871965/v1, https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.22.436468v1 - WIV lab procedures, WIV disassociation, Chinese response None of these sections are diagnostic of anything - speculation and innuendo do not constitute evidence. - Missing evidence This entire section is missing evidence we _do_ have - early cases, early hospitalizations, early excess deaths, positive environmental samples, etc., etc. All of these point _directly_ to the Huanan seafood market and _away_ from the WIV.

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David Griffiths

Nov 15, 2021 at 1:02 AM

Location: Rootclaim's analysis on location is stronger than Stuart Deigin’s. Rootclaim say that Wuhan is no more likely to experience a natural outbreak than other large Chinese cities; Stuart Deigin, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Wuhan is especially likely based on size of city, transportation links, and sales of animals. Stuart Deigin would have been more convincing if he’d compared Wuhan to other very large Chinese cities and made a case for why Wuhan was more likely than those cities to experience an outbreak. For example, it would have been better if he’d explained why Wuhan was more likely to experience an outbreak than Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Foshan, Xian, Shanghai, Nanjing etc. Chimera and Furin Cleavage Site: Stuart Deigin makes good points. Rootclaim's analysis of Chimera and FCS greatly pushes their odds up for lab escape. I’m a bit sceptical. Perhaps there are a lot of virologists and microbiologists speaking off the record and making a very convincing case for lab manipulation. Otherwise, I’m not sure how Rootclaim leans so heavily towards lab manipulation based on what’s currently publicly available. Seems more prudent at this point to go no further than saying that the virus is consistent with both natural and lab origins. Would be interested to learn more of how they decided which scientists’ analyses to credit and which to dismiss. For example, I’m assuming the conclusions of the paper Stuart Deigin linked to were not found to be persuasive by Rootclaim and I’d be interested to know why: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8373617/ WIV lab procedures: It may already be in Rootclaim’s analysis, but it’s relevant that the WIV was doing coronavirus research in BSL-2 labs and not exclusively in more secure BSL-3 labs – page 9 of https://www.science.org/pb-assets/PDF/News%20PDFs/Shi%20Zhengli%20Q&A-1630433861.pdf

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David Griffiths

Nov 12, 2021 at 10:51 PM

I want to hear Yuri Neil's counterargument before deciding if I agree with you.